Born and bred in Scotland, William Harris is a retired

journalist who lives in Johannesburg, South Africa
with his second wife of more than 40 years. These
memoirs were inspired by friends and family urging
him to ‘write down’ the experiences he sometimes
recounted about his life as a child living in Scotland
and later as a member of the elite 3 Commando
Brigade, Royal Marines. The latter half of the book is
devoted to his exciting, often frightening, experiences
as a journalist in Kenya, the Belgian Congo, Rhodesia
and South Africa.


For Beth who gave me her life and made sense of mine – and
for my children and my grandchildren, many of whom don’t
know me. Too many grandfathers complain that the family
isn’t interested in their stories but, in my case, the fault is mine
– I wasn’t there.

Copyright © William Harris

The right of William Harris to be identified as author of this work
has been asserted by him in accordance with section 77 and 78 of
the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be
reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any
form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying,
recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission of the

Any person who commits any unauthorized act in relation to this
publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims
for damages.

A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British

ISBN 978 184963 839 5

First Published (2014)
Austin Macauley Publishers Ltd.
25 Canada Square
Canary Wharf
E14 5LB

Printed and bound in Great Britain

Chapter One

You hoped for nothing
before you were born
so why hope for so much
when you’re dying?

Look at what you got
when you hoped for nothing

This is what I got …

“Please God, which Side is Up?” is obviously a stupid question
and a ridiculous title for a book – or is it? I mean, you can
answer it, can’t you? If you were to shoot a rocket from the
North Pole and then shoot another one at the South Pole which
one would be going “UP”?
A lot of life is just as inexplicable when you go back
through the foggy forests of your memory. You can see the
whole wood but the individual tree is difficult to remember –
unless you marked it in some way. Are the scars on the tree or
do you carry them on yourself?
My first memory is of sharing my worms with my buddy,
a chap called Alex Seath. We were both about four years old at
the time. I had dug up three beauties from the little midden at
the back of our garden and I carefully sliced each of them in
two with my mother’s butter knife.
I solemnly gave Alex half of each one and then my dad
suddenly interrupted us by insisting:
‘Worms are for fishing.’
It was too late, Alex had already eaten his. He said they
weren’t very nice. Apart from not showing much promise as a

gourmet I’ll take any bets that Alex still doesn’t know which
way is up any more than I do. But that grand enigma also
presupposes – for me at least – the existence of God or “The
Force” as Star Wars puts it so beautifully, and for that I am
eternally grateful!
Both of my mythical rockets are supposedly going UP,
although in opposite directions, and they will obviously try to
avoid colliding with the asteroids, satellites and all the other
junk that’s floating around up there – but in order to get
At the last count, there are close to nine billion human
beings as directionless as the rockets. We have no idea what
we have to do to get to what objective – and there’s an
enormous amount of junk, mostly human, that we have to
avoid. But it’s still worth debating over a glass of wine or ten –
while we enjoy life and share as much love as possible on this
amazingly beautiful planet that somebody (or something)
created …


Of Belts and Bootnecks

The rain was pelting down, drumming on the vaulted roof of
Edinburgh’s Waverley railway station arcing high above as he
stood silently on the platform regarding the empty train
carriages lined up in front of him.
The rain was also sliding in cold rivulets down his neck
from the catchment area of his curly hair but he was not really
aware of the discomfort. It was a truly driech and gloomy day
but he was oblivious. He was too full of anticipation. He was
about to head off into England, a foreign country, and join the
Royal Marines, the elite British corps of crack troops that also
incorporated the Commando Brigade, the men of the Green
Beret. He wanted one of those berets.

His name was Billy and he was on the brink of a new life
that promised real excitement and the challenge of a manhood
he had previously doubted he would ever achieve.
He was wearing a cream coloured raincoat – darkly cream
coloured because it was certainly no raincoat; it was sodden,
having endured a full two minutes of a typically Scottish
downpour for the last hundred yards of his ungainly dash to the
station, laden with a suitcase bulging from the efforts of an
overly concerned mother.
His mother might well have been over enthusiastic in the
packing but the raincoat was his own fault. He recalled the
words of the salesman at Burton's tailors two years earlier:
‘Well now laddie, it’s no exactly what you might call rain
proof, if ye ken what I mean. More like resistant like.’ A
gentle pause: ‘But it’s verra smart and a bit like the one
Humphrey Bogart wore in yon fillum where he was a
A highly effective sales pitch to a sixteen-year-old cadet
journalist with a desperate need to improve his self image. The
years between eleven and sixteen had been spent as an invalid,
deprived of the exuberance and physical joy of developing
youth. He had been totally demoralized which had created a
deep hunger to at least appear normal; perhaps even give the
impression of the hard-bitten, cynical, investigative journalist;
the look would be enough he had thought at the time. Not that
the military-style “trench” coat really did it for him but he had
thought it did and that was a much needed comfort.
Truly it was more mirage than image, as he was wont to
reluctantly concede in the privacy of his bedroom and the
unforgiving reality of the night.
But on this wet and miserable Edinburgh day the world
was beautiful, including the rain and his sopping military-style
raincoat. Seven years earlier the world had not been beautiful,
it had been terrifying …


The sun was shining brightly outside the classroom but
none of the thirty children noticed it. The classroom was silent,
waiting. All of the eleven-year-olds were sitting very still at
their worn old desks; nobody moving, nobody making any
noise except for Hamish at the back of the room softly scuffing
his dusty shoes.
There was no feeling of the child in this room; no giggling,
no mocking, no squealing, no bright eyes, no child. It was
uncanny in its unnatural stillness, a tableaux of nervous
Nobody was looking at anyone else, or anywhere else,
except at Miss Mabel Marshall whose eyes were slowly roving
across the faces of the children in front of her. She also seemed
to be waiting; waiting for the right moment to break the
It was close to the end of the class. The previous night’s
homework sat neatly piled at her left hand.
Slowly and with great deliberation, Miss Marshall opened
the right hand drawer of her desk and drew out the rolled up
tawse, the heavy leather belt split at the end into two thick
thongs roughly twelve centimetres in length. She placed it
carefully on the desk.
Margaret Leach in the front row started to weep silently,
two tears spilling slowly down her cheeks. Miss Marshall
ignored her and read out three names.
‘Archie Brewer, Douglas Montgomery and Billy Harris
come forward for punishment,’ she said in her high, thin voice.
‘Your homework was sloppy, dirty and carelessly done …
despite my warnings. I have told you many, many times. If you
don’t listen, you must learn – the hard way.’
Archie and Doug struggled out of the ungainly, joined seat
and desk contraptions that enclosed them and moved
reluctantly up to the front of the class.
Billy watched them with blank eyes. His legs were rubbery
and he wondered vaguely if he could stand.
‘Billy,’ Miss Marshall said sharply. ‘Come forward, now!’
He took a short, nervous gasp of breath and levered
himself up with his hands, immediately conscious of the

tenderness in both his hands and his wrists from the two
strokes of the tawse he had taken on each just the other day,
wasn’t it on Tuesday? Today was Thursday.
And it had been going on for weeks, at least twice a week,
for weeks and weeks. He could not remember how many.
Archie and Doug, standing to his left, each took one stroke
on either hand, doubled up in pain and crossed their arms,
thrusting each hand under the opposite armpit, as everybody
did to ease the pain, and went back to their seats.
Billy was aware of them and could hear Doug stifling a
sob, and then he was slowly raising his right hand at waist
level in front of him and screwing his eyes tight shut so he
wouldn’t see it coming.
It struck like a heavy, red hot thunderbolt and he yelled in
agony, falling to one knee and beginning to sob.
Miss Marshall stared at him and a curious wave of
uneasiness touched her. Perhaps it was too much. The boy was
falling apart in front of her. Clearly he would not be able to
take the second stroke.
‘You may return to your seat,’ she said stiffly. ‘At once –
Billy stayed on one knee, unable to get up, sobbing and
gasping great gulps of air.
Miss Marshall looked at Martha McKinnon sitting wide
eyed, staring at the crouching Billy.
‘Martha, help him to his seat,’ Miss Marshall said sharply.
When Martha had eased Billy back into his seat, he sat
hunched over the desk, his right hand buried deep under his
left armpit, holding it tightly in a vain effort to ease the
The bell ending the school day rang with shocking effect
on all of them, including a tense and slightly uncertain Miss
Marshall. There might be trouble here, she thought vaguely.
But of course discipline had to be maintained –
particularly with unruly, slipshod boys such as these.
Nevertheless, the boy had better pull himself together
quickly before he was noticed by some other member of staff,

most of whom had really no idea what discipline was all about
and might question his condition.
She pulled her lips together firmly, gathered up the
homework which she had already marked and did not need,
and left the classroom ahead of the children. She had never
done that before in their memory.
Billy was the last out of the classroom, led by Martha who
had a comforting arm around his shoulders. He turned away
from the door to the playground where all the others were
heading and moved straight ahead towards the empty
‘It’s OK Martha,’ he mumbled. ‘Just leave me.’ He
shrugged off her arm and stumbled on into the gym.
Heather Biggar found him there half an hour later.
Heather was in the B class, complementary to Billy’s. Both
classes were preparing for the “Qualifying Exams”, the
prelude to secondary school. The pupils had been split into two
groups because there were too many for effective teaching in a
single class.
Heather was a strongly built girl with dark curly hair and
she was Billy’s next door neighbour in King Street, part of the
new housing development where they lived.
She stood looking down at him as he sat silently on a
wooden bench just inside the door of the gym. He didn’t
answer when she spoke to him.
‘Billy, what are you doing here?’ She kneeled down beside
him with her hand gently touching his arm. He slowly pulled
his hand out from the safety of his armpit and held it out to
‘Heavens,’ she said, staring at the red weals burning on
his palm and running angrily up his wrist.
‘We’re going home now Billy,’ she said firmly. ‘No more
school today.’
She put her hands on his upper arms and lifted him up
from the bench where he had been sitting quietly in a world of
his own. He didn’t look up at her. He just stood. He walked
silently with her, saying not a word on the one mile walk to his

(Footnote: The tawse was very rarely used on children
until they entered secondary school and even then it was used
with caution and invariably only to curb bad or unruly
behaviour. There were exceptions but they were rarely
disciplined, either because they were not known by those in
authority or a quiet word to the offending teacher was
considered sufficient).

Chapter Two

Snowy the Invalid

Decades later, when “Billy” had achieved the relatively more
mature title of “Willie”, he was often heard to comment, as he
eased himself contentedly under the duvet in the darkening of
an African night, ‘Heavens, bed is beautiful’. That was
certainly not his opinion during those bleak days and months
of enforced bed rest in Scotland following his defeat at the
hands of the tawse.
Dr David Marshall, cousin of the woman who had come so
close to destroying him, was the family physician whose task it
was to put the bits back together, physically at least. Dr
Marshall was no psychiatrist and none was thought necessary.
In the early days of his collapse, Billy was often asked:
‘But why did she give ye the belt sae often, Billy?’
He had no idea and would simply shrug helplessly.
‘I think maybe she didnae like me much.’
It emerged that Miss Marshall had one of her nephews in
the same class as Billy. There was nothing wrong with Alan
Marshall. Only thing was, he and Billy were constantly
challenging each other. They were always pushing and
shoving, making faces at each other, doing their alpha male bit
and enjoying every minute – and frequently disturbing the
class but, curiously, it was never sufficient to bring out the
much feared tawse.
Billy was told he had chorea, a nervous condition marked
by a “murmur” at the heart and it would take a long time to
heal. Nobody said how long. Nobody told him what “damage”
his heart had taken or what a “murmur” was. Nothing was ever
As an accompaniment to the “bad heart”, he had another
condition called St Vitus Dance which was part of the
“nervous disorder”. This led to a most curious, and repeated,

repositioning of his facial features in which he attempted to put
his nose where it was not supposed to be.
He watched himself doing it in the mirror and thought that
his friend Archie Brewer’s description pretty much fitted:
‘You look like Snowy (Archie’s pet rabbit) getting tucked
into a piece of lettuce and not liking it much.’
It was indeed a curious circular motion of the nose – done
at phenomenal speed – and difficult to copy although both
Archie and Doug tried manfully and repeatedly without
Archie and Doug visited him periodically, mostly on
Sundays to avoid going to church. Alan Marshall wanted to
visit but didn’t know how. He told their classmates that he felt
guilty. His aunt had done him no favours. Heather Biggar also
came often to visit since she was living right next door and she
felt protective – although she didn’t come on Sundays because
she enjoyed church. She was a girl.
And, just because she was a girl, Heather made him feel
vaguely uneasy. He could not stop looking at her breasts and
had no idea why he did it or why it gave him such pleasure, not
to mention that curious but fabulous sensation in his groin!
What an extraordinary cause and effect that was!
Billy knew nothing of cause and effect at that stage in his
life but he did know and enjoy the results. Unfortunately,
Heather didn’t come very often. She was a very busy girl
fighting off the other boys who wanted to do more with her
breasts than just look at them. But she was wise in the ways of
women. She didn’t tell Billy about the other boys because she
instinctively knew it would upset him.
Apart from those vague recollections, memory afforded
him few details of that period in his life. It was a dreaming
time, a soft time with no fear other than the unwelcome and
baffling and constantly demoralising knowledge that he was
“an invalid”.
It was a lonely time of hours spent sleeping or reading –
comics were great but that was all about boys becoming men,
athletes who stood apart from the ubiquitous studious weed,
which appeared to be his probable fate.

A time of much fussing and tearful care from a deeply
distressed mother. A time of comics and toys from a grimly
cheerful father who did not know what to say but said it
anyway with a clumsy pat on the shoulder.
A time of bright, multi-coloured flames dancing in the
small fireplace in the shadowed bedroom. He could stare into
the fire for hours and dream his dreams – which offered
immense and wonderful opportunities for escape – and try
unsuccessfully to accept the implications of the word
Sure, he was tired. And sure, he didn’t have much energy.
But he felt OK! There was nothing wrong with his legs or his
arms. Maybe his heartbeat was funny sometimes; maybe he
did sweat occasionally when there was nothing to sweat about.
So what? He wasn’t a cripple or anything.
Frustration lived inside him. He could feel it often, quietly
chewing away in his belly.
Two months later, or was it three, he was allowed out of
bed. This was a major breakthrough. He was supposed to rest
for a couple of hours in the afternoon but despite everything
his mother could do, this was not an acceptable option.
He fought it on a daily basis and eventually his mother
conceded defeat. She never really won a battle after that but
she never gave up trying and, in his memory, he blessed her
for it.
But the “breakthrough” as Billy saw it, came when Dr
Marshall strongly recommended a drastic change of treatment
which devastated his mother and gave him a queasy mixed
feeling of both unease and excitement. He was to go off and
“recuperate”, and he was to do it somewhere else! Not at
He was to spend “a few weeks” with his uncle and aunt
and two cousins in the wee post office at Croy in Invernesshire
on the fringes of the bleak – and haunted – Culloden Moor,
and he was to do it on his own!
This “complete break”, resolutely recommended by the
devoted Dr Marshall who was still making amends for his
cousin’s infamy, was probably as much for Billy’s harassed

mother’s sake as his own, although it did not give her the
peace of mind that it eventually gave him.

Please God, I hope you’ve given Dr Marshall the
traditional “room with a view” up there ‘cause he did a grand
job. He got me fit for the doctors at Edinburgh General – and
a whole new future.

Chapter Three

The “Ghosties” on the Moor

The wind that flickered in gusts across the sodden moor
carried with it what the locals called “ the sma’ rain”, a million
tiny droplets that left a cold but gentle caress on the boy’s
cheeks as he stood with his hands thrust into his coat pockets
sharing himself with the elements.
The black and grey clouds swirled above him threatening a
downpour but holding back as is often the way of it in the
Highlands. The windblown clouds stretched away in slow,
waltzing sweeps to the horizon beyond the big stone cairn. The
horizon was as bleak and stark as the cairn, the famous
memorial to the bloody defeat of the clansmen at the hands of
the English – and not a few Scots who did not support the
Jacobite rebellion and were not in favour of the “Frenchified”
Stuart family.
Billy stood in front of the cairn hearing the angry shouts of
the grimy, straggle-haired clansmen as they tore steel from
scabbard and began the bloody charge against the ranks of the
Hanoverian muskets lined up below them on the gentle slope.
A little later, as he slowly walked the moor checking the
marker stones naming the clans in memory of the men and
boys who fell there, marking the tufts of rough moor grass
with their blindly passionate blood, he felt strangely at peace
with those long dead – and with himself.
The Highlands had a unique and mystic presence and he
had long become immersed in it, seduced by it, accepting it as
part of himself over the many years the family had been
coming back to where his parents had been born, his father in
Inverness and his mother in Elgin.
This particular day, with the small rain and the slow
moving dark clouds so close above him, suited his mood and
was a perfect setting for the moor and its memories. And he

was quite alone. All the tourist buses had gone. There were no
stragglers. He could hug the imaginings to himself.
And he was increasingly, nervously, getting the feeling
that he was not truly alone. He was very much aware of a
shivery sensation all over his chest and his back and up into his
neck as he watched the misty swirls gathering around him,
dancing a slow reel in the whispering gusts of wind. There
were often as many as a dozen at any one time, suddenly
appearing to his left or his right or directly in front of him as
though created out of the mist. They would appear and turn in
slow graceful spins towards him and then dissolve as if they
never existed. He could hear their faint, moaning song and the
distant music of the pipes. He walked on, his pace slowed by
the tufted grass and the growing feeling that he was the
centrepiece in a ghostly dance of the spirits of the moor who
were trying to tell him something.
He did not feel threatened but he did feel distinctly uneasy
and his skin was alive with a most uncomfortable tingling. He
lengthened his stride a bit as he neared the edge of the woods
and suddenly it was over. He was quite simply a boy standing
on the edge of a moor on a wet and cloudy day. The people of
the moor had gone but he knew they would be here at
Culloden forever.
He felt strangely at peace with himself. It was one of his
last days of recuperation at Croy and it was now time to go
home – and back to school. He would think about that last
scary part when he absolutely had to. For the moment there
was the peace and the marvellous feeling of belonging that he
felt for this lonely place. He had been up here, alone on the
moor, half a dozen times and it had always been a bit spooky –
but never like the last half hour of sharing with the dead what
he would forever afterwards call “the dance”.
He stopped and looked about him, absorbing the gentle
rain, the sweeping clouds, the dull, heavy feel of the air around
him. His weird spooky experience with the ghosts of the brave
men who had died on this lonely moor had touched him
deeply. He was convinced they had been saying good bye –
and he was also sure he understood their message was one of

encouragement. They were telling him that he was of Highland
blood as they were and so he could be no less brave, he would
have to dominate his fear in the future – the courage would
come from somewhere …
Some miles later, as he came to the edge of the strip of
pine trees leading to the post office, he stopped and looked
around the rolling, grassy hills that surrounded the village. He
had walked most of them during the past three months and he
would remember them with deep affection and a powerful
affinity for the remainder of his life.
He smiled, wiping away the “sma’ rain” from his wet face
as he remembered his arrival …

* * * * *

Billy and his parents had been coming “up North” to spend
their annual two-week holiday with the rest of the family,
uncles, aunts and numerous cousins, since Billy could
remember. And every year, without fail, his mother would
make the same comment as the train was coming into the
station at Inverness:
‘Oh, just smell that air. It’s real Highland air. It’s just
grand isn’t it?’
And it was. It was different from the harsh, salt tang of the
air coming cold off the North Sea in Kirkcaldy, the coastal
town in Fifeshire where they lived. And also very different
because the town was famous for its manufacture of linoleum,
the material used to cover the floors in most Scottish homes,
and it stank to high heaven in the production process.
Up in the Highlands you could smell the pine trees
wherever you went and, if you had Billy’s mother’s
imagination, a lot more grand, if unidentifiable, scents besides.
His mother, Muriel, was a stout, smiling woman with
wavy brown hair and bright blue eyes. In her early forties she
was the picture of a motherly woman, a role which fitted her
most comfortably. She was also an opera singer of
considerable talent having sung solo under the baton of Sir
Malcolm Sargent before her marriage.

Consequently, she could carry herself with a genuinely
imperious air which could be quite intimidating when she used
it which was quite often. It did not, of course, intimidate his
father, William (Snr) a dapper man of some five feet seven
inches if you included his socks.
Known as Bill – there is a certain insane logic surrounding
the name William – he was a senior teller in the Bank of
Scotland, a quiet man of fine manners, easy going and
sensitive to Muriel’s increasingly frequent “nerves” brought on
by the onset of menopause and now exacerbated by Billy’s
heart condition.
Bill had a long tether but, when he was at the end of it, for
whatever reason, he was a sight to behold. His cheeks would
flush and his eyes would bulge like steel grey ball bearings
threatening to blow out of their sockets and tear your head
It was therefore no surprise to people who had seen him
“lose it” when they were informed that he had been a twenty-
year-old sergeant in the Gordon Highlanders during the last,
frightful year of the First World War.
Inevitably, his favourite quote to Billy who was also on the
small side, was:
‘It’s not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the
fight in the dog.’ It was always said firmly and with the
absolute conviction of having been personally put to the test
many times.
It was also, inevitably, an axiom that Billy would always
thereafter call to mind for courage and reassurance on perhaps
too many challenging occasions in his own life.

* * * * *

The Croy Post Office was a big, sprawling white-painted
house with a recently painted black roof, built of pine and
standing like a large, emphatic full stop at the end of a long,
thick stretch of the trees that had been used to make it. It was
the only building on that road for close on a mile; to the left of
the house and beyond it were fields of pasture dotted with

dozens of slow-moving brown and white Ayrshire cattle. On a
hill in the distance, about a mile away, was the dairy farm.
To the left of the house, way down at the end of the dusty
road they had just driven up, was the crossroads and if you
turned left you would end up in Inverness. If you turned right
you would be in the House of The Lord which stood there in
silent black aggression, right on the crossroads, in order to
catch sinners from whichever direction.
The Williamson family, of which Billy was about to
become an integral part, would turn right into His House three
times every Sunday for the next three months but Billy,
blessedly, was in ignorance of that inescapable duty on this,
the first day of arrival.
The church was a raw and naked stone-built structure
entirely lacking in beauty or grace either outside or inside but
it was home to the Wee Free Kirk, one of many memorials to a
hard God and his equally unforgiving disciple John Calvin.
In days to come Billy would recount how he had tried so
very hard to meet God by visiting His House three times on the
Sabbath, every Sabbath for all of three months – and that was a
matter of six miles walking on each pilgrimage day!
That, Billy would point out, meant he had walked near a
hundred miles to see God. Despite that incredible effort, Billy
would say with a deep sigh, ‘An’ I never did meet Him! Now
would ye be believing such a thing?’
The sun was hot and bright as they got out of the car. Billy
took a last look to his right and followed the white, pebbly
road for a mile or more as it disappeared round a bend,
swamped on both sides by far-reaching pine forests that
stretched right up into the distant hills beyond.
There was a simple, three-stranded wire fence surrounding
the house which Billy knew was right and proper for any self
respecting village post office in the Highlands of Scotland. A
stout wooden gate with a latch separated the property from the
road. It was now being opened by a tall, slimly built boy of
fifteen with dark glossy hair and a face like an eagle, Billy’s
cousin, Hugh.

Standing on the grass behind the fence and shyly drawing
lines and circles with her right shoe in the stony path leading
up to the house, was his other cousin, Jessmar. Two years
younger than her brother and, amazingly, crowned with thick
fair almost blonde hair, Jessmar was a pretty young girl, the
same sharpness of nose softened by red, freckled cheeks, her
slender body showing a delicate promise above the waist as
Billy duly noted.
Beyond Jessmar, and coming quickly down the path was
his Aunt Jen, fair of complexion like her daughter but grey-
haired before her time. She was a sturdily built woman and
small like his Dad, with a strong angular face and a generous
smiling mouth.
She was to become one of the loves of Billy’s life – which
was immediately entrenched by the strong hug she gave him
before even greeting his parents. No fussing, no kissing, just a
powerful grip that told him he belonged.
Last to come down the path was a figure that made Billy’s
eyes widen. He was a giant of a man with huge shoulders and a
broad deep chest who stood at least a foot above his Dad. Billy
cricked his neck looking up at the man whose granite face split
into a warm smile that was totally dominated by his massive,
hooked nose. This was the true golden eagle of the high
Scottish hills and the bleak moors that had sired Hugh.
He did not bow down like most large adults do to small
boys but he bent a little at the knees and stretched out a huge
hand to Billy who watched his own hand disappear into a mass
of bone and muscle. There was no squeeze and no pressure,
just an encompassing warmth which Billy found immensely
‘This is your Uncle Alec, Billy,’ his Dad said with his own
right hand hanging oddly at his side, taking the gentle air –
obviously Uncle Alec was not as kind to other men as he was
to small boys.
They had tea and scones with real farm butter and fresh
strawberries – heaven had arrived – and then Billy’s cousins
were sent off to show him his bedroom, the rest of the house
and, inevitably, to explore the woods which came right up to

one side of the house – where his room was – and right round
the back where the chickens were. Real live, noisy chickens
with fluffy yellow chicks that would eat out of your hand.
Old hat to his cousins maybe but immensely exciting for
Billy “the townie” who was also amazed and impressed by the
constant cooing and coughing of the wood pigeons that seemed
to fill the wood. The sound of the pigeons and the smell of the
pines became part of his life, not only for the three months he
shared with them but for all of the years ahead.
The house captivated him. It creaked all the time. The
walls were built of pine, the roof was built of pine, and the
floors the same. Every step you took, the house talked to you.
Later that night, sleepless and still excited, he found that the
house continued to talk, if only to itself.
It was just a bit scary at first but he got used to it and often
in the many lonely nights to come, he would have
conversations with the house when the paraffin lamps had been
extinguished and the night was silent.
Every night, as he huddled under the blankets, he would
have the joy of listening, fascinated, to the night sounds of the
woods just outside his window; the pines whispering in the
wind, the soft hooting of the owls, the mysterious scrapings
and scrabblings, the eerie cries and squeals that stirred his
But his chats with the house were just as satisfying,
particularly on Sunday nights after the repeated pilgrimages to
The House of The Lord. On those nights Billy would find
himself talking to his God and exchanging points of view:
‘Ye ken that man, the one with the tuning fork that he
bangs on the pew to get the right sound and then starts to sing,
to get everybody on the right note? Well he’s no very good is
he? He canna really sing can he? I mean it sounds right terrible
– and him a’ways so pleased with himself.’
And God would creakily agree and wait patiently for the
next one:
‘They say they willna’ have an organ ’cause it’s the
instrument of the devil but that’s daft is it not?’ And God

would grin from the knotty pine ceiling and give him a couple
of quick cracks of agreement.

* * * * *

In the first week after his parents said their tearful (Mum)
and clumsy (Dad) goodbyes, Billy was introduced to Mr and
Mrs McLeod who ran the dairy farm up on the hill. It was to be
his daily chore to fetch the fresh milk in a steel milk can that
had a fitted lid so the milk wouldn’t spill. It was only a couple
of pints so it was not too heavy and Aunt Jen thought he was
up to it which pleased him mightily.
And it was probably the real beginning of recovery for
Billy. That two-mile hike up the hill to the farm and back,
changing hands every now and again, charging the
unimpressed cows – on the way up, not with the precious milk
– built up his bed-floppy muscles and gave his bored heart
something worthwhile to do.
Within the month Billy was walking the hills with a thick
sandwich in his pocket and a light, untroubled step. Ten miles
in the day, across the tough grassed moors, through the
crackling bracken and across the sparkling streams, tawny
from their sand and pebbled beds; life was under his feet and
in his heart. But this joyful freedom of movement and action,
this incredible release from the prison of physical restriction
was hard won and not only by Billy but also by his Uncle Alec
who sacrificed one day and a great deal of sweat to carve the
beauty of the Highlands forever in Billy’s heart …

* * * * *

Alex pumped up the tyres on the red post office bike and
wiped the sweat off his face with his sleeve. It was going to be
a long, long day and he was under no illusions about just how
tough a ride was ahead of him as he looked at the wee boy
standing with his legs straddling the front wheel and his hands
steadying the handlebars. He and Jen had decided that wee
Billy must be bored half to death with nothing to do all day,

reading books or wandering alone in the woods. His two
cousins bussed to school in Inverness every day and did not
come back until the early evening.
Truth be told Billy was quite happy hunting Red Indians in
the woods or away in his own imagination with the books but
they didn’t know that so the trip on the bike had been
organised by a determined aunt and a reluctant uncle. Alec
unscrewed the pump connection and stood up, stretching his
back to relieve a touch of cramping.
‘Well now, I think there’s plenty of air in those tyres right
enough so let’s be off laddie.’ He swung his right leg over the
bike and steadied it with his backside on the saddle, lifting
Billy up into the front, wide steel pannier which Jen had
padded with a couple of good cushions from the settee in the
Billy perched in the pannier with his legs dangling over the
front, one of the cushions protecting his thighs from the
unyielding steel bar as he gripped the sidebars with his hands.
Alec assessed the weight, swinging the bike just so from right
to left and said ‘Holy Jesus’ under his breath. He had not used
such words since his days of horror on the Somme battlefield
but he shook off his feeling of guilt at the blasphemy by
vowing atonement.
He was to make that atonement on the hot, dry and dusty
hills of his “postie’s round” during that never to be forgotten
ride with the uncomfortable, red faced Billy wriggling in front
of him.
It was a total of about ten miles with only three important
parcels and one telegram to deliver to croft style smallholdings
existing in a telephone free, country tranquility; but it was ten
hard, uncomfortable miles they would both remember.
There is a feeling of silence that is not a silence in the
pine-bedecked hills of northern Scotland. The sandy, gritty
roads, not much more than paths really, scrabble under the
slow moving tyres and you can hear birds, most of them
pigeons, making critical comments to each other as they watch
your slow, and painful progress up the hill.

Down in the valley you can see the cows having a good
time doing nothing and way across the hills you can see a half
dozen foresters harvesting the trees. You can faintly hear the
sound of the power saws in the stillness of the warm air under
the dominant sun. It’s a beautiful Highland day. A grand day
for being a cow, not a postman.
And certainly not a postman on a bike bearing a squirming
eleven-year-old boy in the front pannier.
A sparkling stream of clear water meandered through the
hills and they crossed it three times in their odyssey. Each time
Alec stopped on the hump backed bridge for a breather and to
consider his beloved trout.
They were small, about a pound was reckoned a good fish,
but there were plenty of them. You could see them clearly in
the bright water which tasted so sweet and fresh they both
scooped eager handfuls of it at each sweating stop. Kneeling
together on the green banks of the stream was the kind of
bonding ceremonial that stays in the mind. Billy would
remember it and the taste of the crystal water for the rest of his
life. Alec probably did too.

Please God Have you conferred a sainthood on Uncle Alec
yet? Not that he would want it mind you. I’m sure he’s still a
stubborn Wee Free man so maybe just give him a couple of
difficult trout to stalk every day and make them two pounders.
He’s never as good as my Grandpa “Bill” – a rose by
whatever name? – but he’ll get them no matter how long it
takes. And he has all the time in the world has he not?

Chapter Four

A Fond Farewell

Goodbyes were ever miserable occasions and this one was no
exception as the five of them sat around the kitchen table
drinking tea. Alec monosyllabic and young Hugh no better
(although when he went to university he found his tongue right
enough and particularly with the girls so, not surprisingly, he
failed first year but gained a reputation to rival Lothario
himself as Billy found out many years later).
Billy tried to put in his share of words but he had never
been a great talker and the three months he had spent roaming
the woods and moors alone in all kinds of weather had opened
his heart but failed to loosen his tongue.
It was the women, as always, who kept the talk going,
inconsequential perhaps but maintaining a level of warm
affection that the three males understood and appreciated as
being the way of it.
Jessmar, who had come to love Billy as her own brother,
had a sparkle in the eye and a determination to be frivolous.
Aunt Jenny occupied herself making sandwiches for Billy’s
trip home to Kirkcaldy, accompanied by light and teasing
observations such as ‘Well, ye’ll no be having to get the milk
from the McLeods on this Saturday will ye Billy?’
Which remark produced a chuckle all round the table and a
flush to Billy’s cheeks. It was a reminder of one of his early
Saturday’s when the vast welcoming expanse of the moors had
led to a Wandering Willie and a forgetting of his duty to fetch
the milk, which in turn led to no milk for the tea or the
porridge or whatever the following Sunday – it being the
Sabbath no member of a Wee Free Kirk congregation would
dream of making such an ungodly trip!
The goodbyes were a mixture of the tearful and the
cheerful with Aunty Jen managing to maintain a stiff upper lip
(something the Scots mastered centuries before the English

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